Magical production of Wicked composer’s first musical
It’ll be 50 years old next year but somehow I’ve never managed to see Pippin. I’m glad my first introduction to Stephen Schwartz’s earliest musical (with a book by Roger O. Hirson) was this production at the Charing Cross Theatre, first seen at the Garden Theatre in 2020. It may not be a behemoth like Shwartz’s Wicked, Godspell and The Prince of Egypt but director Steven Dexter has put together a joyous version of this uplifting, magical show.
Apparently, with eight actors, it’s much slimmed down from previous versions, making it tight and intimate. All the more so because it’s being played in this lovely little basement theatre on a traverse stage. With the front rows at stage floor level.
Consequently, this story of a young medieval Prince who rejects the establishment and tries to find fulfillment in life is very easy to relate to when he’s right next to you. That he is a Prince is not really the point. Despite obvious comparisons with another Prince, who recently rejected his destiny to become an ordinary wealthy and privileged man, Pippin really is an Everyman. This is evidenced from the very beginning when members of the cast are supposedly chosen at random to play the parts, including Pippin. In other words, it could be anyone, and at various times during the proceedings, comparisons are made to previous Pippins.
The musical takes the form of a troupe of players telling the story of Pippin’s search so he can be said to reject one destiny only to be trapped by another. The question becomes will he finally reject the story planned for him?
Ryan Anderson is superb in the title role, sincere, naive, caring, angry and, annoyingly, never satisfied as he looks for this so-called fulfillment. And he tries many things- war, power, art, working the land. Through it all, he interacts with some wonderful characters: his grandmother played with great humour by Genevieve Nicole; the woman he appears to love, Catherine, played as confident and brittle by Natalie McQueen; and the Lead Player, a Mephistopheles-like character who directs the action, and leads Pippin to a much flagged up finale, which may not be what our hero was expecting.
Playing this role is Ian Carlyle who is the outstanding actor in this production with a strong personality, plaintive voice and brilliant dancing. In fact, the best moment in the show was the number Right Track which he and Ryan Anderson perform together in perfect unison.
Oh yes, the dancing. This is what makes this production such a winner. Nick Winston’s choreography is always entertaining and the cast dance with skill and enthusiasm.
The costumes and set by David Shields reflect the hippy time in which it was written and its hippy message that our lives are not pre-destined, and that looking for vainglory rather than finding fulfillment in the ordinary is the devil’s work. Oh, and the songs are heavenly.
Typical offers us a day in the life of an ordinary man, a typical man, but the question is, is he a typical black man?
He gets up and gets dressed. He’s looking forward to the weekend, when he’ll see his boys. He fancies a night out so he goes to a disco. By the end he’s dying in a police station. Not so typical, but in Ryan Calais Cameron‘s play, ‘typical’ has many meanings and one is when they stereotype a black man .
It’s a one-man play and a huge burden is placed on the Richard Blackwood’s shoulders. There’s no set. He mimes, he mimics other characters, he speaks constantly in a stream of consciousness. The good news is that Mr Blackwood doesn’t give a typical performance, what he does is exceptional in the extreme.
Ryan Calais Cameron has written a poetic drama and Mr Blackwood is right on top of the rhythm of it. There’s a real love of language here, and there are joyful plays on words that he effortlessly gets his tongue round. For example, he talks of ‘sleep in the corner of the cornea’. He says, ‘Look here, I cook here, don’t need no damn book here’ and ‘I want to be inside the rave raving, instead of outside the rave, ranting and raving’.
There are many funny moments, especially when Richard Blackwood mimics the people he encounters. I laughed out loud as he confronted a police officer. The officer is saying, ‘Do you want to come to the station’. Our guy is saying ‘Do you want to take my statement’ and the two begin interrupting as each tries to have his say. Do you want to.. Do you.. in swift repartee, as all the while the tension rises.
Anastasia Osei-Kuffour directed the original play at the Soho Theatre and this screen version is filmed there so it retains a sense of theatre while making good use of close ups and quick cutting to different camera angles.
Our protagonist is quite an ordinary man but also very likeable. He can look after himself but he avoids trouble. When he experiences typical everyday racism, systemic racism if you like, he doesn’t rise to it, he even questions whether there is racist intent. Is the doorman making him wait because he’s black or simply because the place is full.
He still doesn’t avoid a serious racist attack. In the hospital a head injury has left him confused but the staff and police see what they want to see- a typical man- perhaps a typical black man- on drugs or drunk and frighteningly aggressive. The meaning of ‘typical’ moves from ‘everyday’ to ‘predictable’ to ‘expected’.
Once he’s arrested, the police beat him in the van. It is perhaps typical racist police behaviour or at least it’s nothing like as rare as it should be. The depictions of the beatings invite a visceral response, again all mimed by Mr Blackwood..
The police let him die. We see him die, before our eyes in deep close up, choking on his own blood,. It is shocking, horrific and deeply upsetting.
This is an imagined version of what happened, not to a typical black person but an actual man Christopher Alder in 1999. The last minutes of his life were recorded on CCTV at the police station. It led to a verdict of unlawful killing and an apology from the police force but no one was punished. It’s part of a pattern that sees a disproportionate number of black people stopped and searched, arrested, and dying in custody.
While that is important and Typical rightly brings attention to this outrage, it is important to say that this is a well acted, well constructed drama that uses language, humour and emotional empathy, to make us feel the pain of one man’s tragic end.
Victoria Hamilton blooms in Mike Bartlett’s play about loss
Sometimes you watch the first act of a play and it’s just the setup and you really want to get it over with so you can move on to how it’s all going to work out. Not so with Mike Bartlett’s Albion, directed by Rupert Goold at the Almeida Theatre, which is currently available as a live recording on BBC iPlayer. The first act is captivating and what follows, while good, never lives up to the promise.
Audrey has bought a house she knew as a child. It had a historic garden and she plans to renovate it. No matter that this involves uprooting her daughter, neglecting her business, upsetting the local community who have become used to using the huge outdoor space for their annual events.
It’s a good script but what you’re riveted by is Victoria Hamilton’s performance. From the start, she grabs you by the lapels, then she puts you down and walks away, then she picks you again. She is mesmerising as she paces back and forth and spits out her staccato sentences, like a neurotic sergeant major. For example, when she is pouring tea and says: ‘Let me be mother…since I am…’ followed by a false, stuttering laugh.
This is the sort of intimate theatre that works really well in a live recording. The Almeida is a small theatre and the cast occupy a three-sided stage. It’s like an oval island surrounded by the audience. Actually, although an island might symbolise its isolation from the rest of the world, it is in fact a garden with a solid tree at one end, giving a sense of history. The actors don’t have to shout and the cameras close in on a face much as you would if you were lucky enough to be sitting in one of the seats.
For me, nothing lived up to that first act. There’s plenty going on with many developments involving the other characters but they felt tacked on, no matter how good the acting was. Not so much multi-layered, as laid on thick. And the ending was way too melodramatic.
What I loved throughout the whole play was the dominating character of Audrey and the way Victoria Hamilton blooms as the wishful gardener. Grief has consumed her and the only way she can cope is to reject everyone and everything in favour of a retreat into an imagined golden age.
She has lost her soldier son in what she sees as defending his country but what is referred to a one point as a ‘folly’. As a way of honouring him, she is determined to recreate the original garden, even though it is now anachronistic. It’s pointed out that the climate has changed- and that ‘climate’ may refer to more than growing conditions, because there is an allegory here for the state of England and how we as a nation are coping with the loss of mythical past glories and with the need to move on.
Audrey wants to return to a bygone age but only within the boundaries of her world. So, she doesn’t care that she is trampling on the traditions of the local people; and she hires the more efficient Polish cleaner (and sacks the local woman who has done the job for years. It is fascinating, shocking even to see the insensitivity that can come from single-mindedness, and her gradual but inevitable disintegration.
It’s also fascinating to see the garden change as flowers grow through the four acts, each of which is a different season, culminating with the ‘fall’. It’s a great design by Miriam Buether.
I glossed over the other characters earlier but that doesn’t mean I don’t think they were acted well. Audrey’s daughter Zara is played by Daisy Edgar-Jones, who recently made a breakthrough to stardom with her role in TV’s Normal People. She is perfect as a troubled twenty something. Helen Schlesinger makes you feel the pain as Katherine, a successful but shy novelist, forced to make a hard choice between a thirty year friendship and a rare opportunity for love.
In a play that is more amusing than funny, Nicholas Rowe as Audrey’s devoted husband Paul got the most laughs as a man so proudly laid back that he was almost horizontal.
It’s hard not to compare Albion with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Unfortrunately, on every count, this play comes out worse. Chekhov’s second half doesn’t peter out, his ending feels real and even his minor characters have depth. So best not go there, better to simply enjoy Albion as a good if not great play with a mother of a leading role that, in future productions, actors will queue up to play.
For me, one of the tests of watching theatre at home is whether I wish I’d seen it in the theatre. In Albion’s case, despite some flaws, I would have loved to have been there. Especially to see that outstanding performance by Victoria Hamilton.
The live recording of Mike Bartlett’s Albion is currently available on BBC i-Player.
With theatres closed and all of us staying at home due to the coronavirus threat, I thought it might be a good idea to look at some of the theatre shows that were recorded live and are now being made available online or on TV for you to watch from the comfort of your sofa, starting with Cyprus Avenue by David Ireland.
The Royal Court and Abbey Theatre production starring Stephen Rea was filmed live in early 2019 and will be streaming on the Royal Court’s website and on their Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts until 26 April 2020.
Cyprus Avenue is a black comedy about a Belfast loyalist. He’s done something bad and he’s seeing a psychiatrist, played by Ronke Adekoleujo. We learn that he’s a bigoted man in fear of losing his identity as British.
In a series of flashbacks he’s seen meeting his granddaughter for the first time and believing that she is Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein. From then on, it’s a rollercoaster ride as he vacillates between his love for his family and its newest member and his prejudice against Gerry Adams and all things Irish catholic.
There are two reasons you need to watch this: David Ireland’s hilarious script and Stephen Rea’s delivery of it. The latter has a face for which the expression ‘hangdog’ could have been invented and Eric’s sadness and confusion and frustration are all in that face. His hunched posture suggests the weight of Irish history.
If, like me, you think of Stephen Rea as an actor who exudes languidness, think again, because the best moment in this play is a monologue, akin to stand up comedy, where Eric races back and forth ranting and raving about Irishness. It had me rolling around on my sofa. That alone is worth the ticket price- if you were paying.
We first meet Eric on a bare stage with the audience on two sides, traverse style- and a nice touch by designer Lizzie Clachan, I thought to suggest the Protestant loyalist, catholic republican divide. The square is also in a sense the inside of Eric’s closed mind with characters appearing and disappearing as he thinks about them. She made a similarly effective use of traverse in the unforgettable Young Vic production of Yerma with Billie Piper.
Stephen Rea is supported by some precision directing from Vicky Featherstone where every move seems to mean something. And some fine actors. Amy Molloy is his daughter Julie who loves her dad but is offended by him, an internal conflict she makes you feel. She represents hope- a younger generation that has grown up with peace and is no longer twisted by sectarian prejudice. Andrea Irvine is Eric’s firm but caring wife and Chris Corrigan steals his scenes as a loyalist terrorist whose lust for violence is tempered by philosophical thoughts.
David Ireland’s script sparks and fizzes
David Ireland’s script sparks and fizzes with laughs at the expense of Eric’s shockingly warped logic and bizarre prejudices (he talks of ‘exotic catholic hairdos direct from the salons of the Vatican’).
As an examination of how loss of identity can lead to bigotry can lead to psychotic behaviour, Cyprus Avenue works well but the ending, which I don’t want to spoil, left me feeling the playwright had gone too far in wanting to shock. It draws comparison with Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant Of Inishmore which, with all due respect to the unquestionable quality of David Ireland’s writing, is a more thought-through play.
What we miss in this filmed version is the way as a member of the theatre audience you would be looking up at the actors and always seeing an opposing audience in the background as well the whole stage and its boundaries. While we gain from extreme close-ups of Stephen Rea’s magnificently craggy face, we lose quite a bit of the time the stage actor’s art of suggesting emotion and meaning through their whole body.
And, of course, the film director chooses what you should look at and while I accept that Stephen Rea is riveting, there were times when I wished, as in some football coverage, I could switch to a different camera looking at another actor’s reaction. The addition of some location filming in Belfast is a mistake. It did not add anything for me and merely broke the tension of the intimate enclosed stage setting.
I found the play flawed but the production is tight and Stephen Rea gives what must be the performance of a lifetime.
An entertaining evening full of fun and frightening facts but light on drama ★★★
The Time Machine offers an opportunity to tour the magnificent London Library. This 180-year-old private lending library is housed in a grade II listed building in Mayfair. It has had among its members Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Virginia Woolf, George Bernard Shaw, Agatha Christie and of course HG Wells.
It’s his novel The Time Machine that inspired Creation Theatre’s entertainment. The audience is restricted to groups of twenty. We meet a time traveller in a lobby area. Ours is played by Leda Douglas. She’s charming towards us but she’s breathless and clearly on edge.
She takes us on a journey to various points in the future represented by the different rooms in the library. We don’t go many years ahead but far enough to be in the dystopian world that has terrified her.
Although it purports to be the true story of secretive time travel that has been going on for about forty years, The Time Machine is really a warning that what we do now affects the future, that our polluting the planet and our scientific tinkering is going to get us in trouble. Or should I say even more trouble?
Interestingly the show which was written last October predicts the current virus epidemic. Did they go back in time and alter the script I wonder?
Anyway, along the way, we meet an amusing computer (Graeme Rose) which is clearly where Alexa and Siri are heading if the backchat is anything to go by. We encounter a scared scientist played by Sarah Edwardson. And finally a chat show host played with gusto by Funlola Olufunwa. Other members of the creative team were Ryan Dawson Laight (designer) and Matt Eaton (Sound Designer).
The play seems to stick the blame for our apocalyptic future on rich capitalists and corporate greed rather than humanity in general. Any way you look at it, the message is bleak and there’s little hope.
This play about time is a timely warning
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a lot of fun to be had in Jonathan Holloway’s witty script. This mainly stems from the notion that once people go back in time, they mess around with the future and ‘every effort might be rendered redundant at any second’. So familiar names are thrown about in totally unfamiliar contexts. Oliver Hardy marries Virginia Woolf and invents time travel. Events are not quite as we remember them: I’m pretty sure the first man on the moon wasn’t Japanese.
There is also a lot of delight taken in exploring the mind-blowing nature of time. Are there multiple universes? Is time a loop?
Amusing as the story of time travel was and frightening as the information was about the way the future is likely to turn out was too, the show’s weakness is that it promises more than it delivers.
We’re told by our guide to be careful, to stick to the walls because of the dangers we may encounter. People are liable to shift shape, or their socks might change colour, or the dreaded Morlocks might appear from under the ground. But actually, none of this happens.
I wasn’t expecting a Disney ride or Doctor Who effects but the odd scary or simply dramatic happening might have been expected following the introduction.
Not enough drama in this crisis
Here are a couple of examples. In order to travel in time, we hold up our arms and our guide holds a briefcase and says “Zoom!” I guess time travel could be as prosaic as that and maybe director Natasha Rickman wanted to avoid the clichés of strobe lighting and loud electronic noise but it did feel a bit flat.
On one occasion, we arrived in a book-lined room with leather armchairs, where we were told about the first time trip. It happened in the basement of Studio 54 New York to the soundtrack of Donna Summers’ I Feel Love. There was talk of the music being turned up and a prospect of disco dancing but, no, we stayed seated in our lovely leather armchairs.
So, although we’re told that the world has been turned upside down and inside out by the constant changing caused by people travelling back in time, nothing ever happens physically to disconcert us.
What is as disconcerting and frightening as a horror film are the many startling facts about the past, present and likely future. I assume these are accurate since The Wellcome Centre for Ethics And Humanities was involved in the production. In fact, there is the odd moment when it seems more like a lecture than a play.
Even if the production seems determined not to make a drama out of a crisis, The Time Machine offers an entertaining evening as well as being a timely wake-up call. And the setting is amazing.
The Time Machine can be seen at The London Library until 5 April 2020 and in summer 2020 at The Museum Of Natural History, Oxford. For more information about The Time Machine, visit www.creationtheatre.co.uk/whats-on/time-machine/
Exciting drama from Grime poet Debris Stevenson ★★★★★
Poet in Da Corner is the semi-autobiographical tale of Debris Stevenson and how she was inspired by grime music to become a poet.
Although the word ‘grime’ suggests ‘grim’, in fact it’s not. It’s an uplifting, exhilarating story of an adolescent woman struggling with her dyslexia, her sexuality and her strict Mormon mother. The teenage misfit makes friends with a young grime artist who encourages her to be real in the way grime artists are true to themselves and their background.
I really warmed to these two friends who love and respect each other and who are trying hard in difficult circumstances. Debris Stevenson plays herself and Jammz plays her friend and mentor.
It’s a show full of tempestuous relationships, lyrical language, and a lot of humour. There’s a moment both shocking and funny when her angry but nonviolent mother slowly pours a gallon of milk over her brother.
The title is a reference to the seminal Dizzee Rascal album Boy In Da Corner that was the spark that lit Debris Stevenson’s fire. The play uses an imaginary character SS Viper who represents grime artists and Debris’ best friend at school. He sees her as privileged because she’s white and her mum makes her sandwiches for school lunch. As an adult, he berates her for appropriating grime- and his work in particular- when she’s not from a black disadvantaged background.
But in the course of the play we see how she used grime as a pathway out of her own disadvantages.
Viper takes her to task for leaving the neighbourhood and losing contact with him. She responds: ‘Helped other people cause I couldn’t help you / took responsibility with privilege too. / But I ran away from me when I ran away from you.’ How she develops and whether the rift can be healed is the subject of the play.
The set, designed by Jacob Hughes, is a bare stage that uses minimal furniture. In a Brechtian way, it is made clear the scenes from the past are being acted out for us and the present day adults comment on them. So we don’t get emotionally involved with the characters. But we do care about them and we see the world of disadvantaged working class kids from a sympathetic perspective- not the gangs, aggression and crude misogyny which is the tabloid image of grime.
The talented Stacy Abalogun and Kirubel Belay play the mother, brother and other parts in this exciting evening directed by Ola Ince. The evening ends with the audience dancing as Jammz performs his excellent song Lemonade Man.
I have heard songs by Dizzee Rascal and Stormzy but I couldn’t imagine listening to whole album or going to a concert because my ears find the 140 bpm and the heavy bass difficult. After seeing this show, I now have a new respect for grime and the artists who produce it and I appreciate the quality of the lyrics. There’s a singular quote from Dizzee Rascal that is used in the play: ‘The skies are all empty because the stars are on the ground.’
If you have the opportunity to see Poet In Da Corner as it tours, please do. Even if you think grime (or poetry for that matter) is not for you, do it anyway.
Janie Dee leads delightful revival of The Boy Friend ★★★★
Even when it was first performed in 1954, Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend appeared to hark back to a bygone era, a time of flappers and musical comedies, that preceded the then modern muscular realist musicals like Oklahoma! That it still appeals 65 years later suggests that the secret of its longevity is that it is set not so much in the past as in a world of its own.
This is a world where rich young English ladies attend a finishing school under the benign supervision of Madame Dubonnet, in which English reserve melts in the warmth of the Mediterranean sun and the charms of the French, and in which a little deception and misunderstanding are mere ripples on a smooth voyage to romance and happiness. Put simply, its appeal is that it offers us a utopian world of innocence.
There isn’t much plot to tell you about. A young heiress wants to be loved for herself not her money. She meets a poor delivery boy, they fall in love, but he’s not all he seems. Don’t worry it all works out. In fact, it all works out for everybody’s love lives.
Sandy Wilson could have tried harder to incorporate some less predictable twists or more plausible predicaments but that’s not the point. The point is, to escape to this fantasy world for a couple of hours and bathe in the brightness of the song and dance.
Romantic jaunty and poignant song and dance
Mr Wilson’s delightful songs aspire to Cole Porter and, while not actually reaching the great man’s heights, there is a lot of humour in lines like ‘The mere idea of living in a palace is, so full of fallacies’. Memorable numbers include the romantic I Could Be Happy With You, the jaunty It’s Never Too Late To Fall In Love, an unexpectedly poignant Poor Little Pierette and of course The Boy Friend. A quick word of praise here for Simon Beck and his live orchestra for driving the show at a jolly pace.
In the intimate space of the Menier, the kicks are so high and the lifts bound so far across the stage that people in the front row may need to duck. Among the many glorious dances, there’s an infectious Charleston performed by Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson and Jack Butterworth (both talented performers to watch out for in the future) and an amusing tango in which the couple come to blows while maintaining the moody moves.
The splendid chorus lines extend to the girls speaking in unison as they flirt with their potential husbands. In fact, given that choreographer Bill Deamer is listed as associate director, it is hard to say where his choreography ends and Matthew White’s direction begins. But all praise to Mr White for honouring the gossamer lightness of this musical while introducing enough down-to-earth physical comedy (with homage to vintage TV) to keep a contemporary audience happy. For example, when the stern French maid Hortense, played with gusto by Tiffany Graves, describes the demureness taught at the school while leaving her legs wide apart as she crosses them. Shades here of Kenny Everett.
Adrian Edmonson squeezes every laugh he can
There’s a touch of Benny Hill when Adrian Edmonson, once a Young One, appears as an old English lord, whose lechery is thwarted at every turn. It’s behaviour we wouldn’t expect to find funny anymore but in the world of The Boy Friend, even lechery is innocent fun and Mr Edmonson squeezes every laugh he can out of it. He even eats an ice cream lasciviously.
And he is just one of a terrific cast brought together in this Menier production. It’s led by one of the great musical stars of the older generation Janie Dee who steals every scene she’s in with her ‘Allo ‘Allo style French accent (another blast from the TV’s comedy past) and her knowing smile, especially when she seeks to rekindle an old romance with ‘Petit Percy’ played by an appropriately starchy Robert Portal.
And it’s a pleasure to see a star of the new generation Amara Okereke in the lead role of Polly Browne. Her sweet soaring voice and subtle acting convey both the strength and vulnerability of a young woman looking for love. Dylan Mason plays her suitor with fresh faced innocence.
Paul Farnsworth’s simple Mediterranean blue set is entirely appropriate and his 1920s style costumes are bright, elegant and fun.
You won’t come away from The Boy Friend feeling you’ve had a substantial meal but you will have enjoyed a superb sorbet.
WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.Invited critics were asked not reveal twists but it’s impossible to review why this play is so powerful without saying how and why. I paid for my ticket so I feel free to discuss the whole play.
‘What are you looking at?’ says the wife to the husband right at the beginning of Fairview at the Young Vic. And that really is the question. What are we looking at? The answer seems to be a well-off African-American family preparing for a special occasion. But there’s something not quite right. Is Jackie Sibblies Drury’s play going to be a family drama set around a dinner party with bickering, jealousy and secrets such as we’ve seen many times over the years? Or is this more like a pastiche of a US sitcom? The set, designed by Tom Scutt, is so bright and clean and detailed that it could be made for HD TV.
The characters are black, yes, which in our world of middle class theatre is unusual, so we may anticipate that race is going to figure. Then again, these are middle class people. Shut your eyes and the characters could be any colour: the wife Beverly played by Nicola Hughes with a perfect mix of bossiness, insecurity and affection, the playful husband Dayton played with a cheeky likeability by Rhashan Stone, Naana Agyei-Ampadu squeezing all the comedy she can from the fashion conscious, faddy sister Jasmine, the sensitive rebellious daughter Keisha played by Donna Banya, plus, off stage, the unreliable brother hoping for a partnership in his firm, the daughter’s friend and the mother who won’t come downstairs. All very amusing but fairly predictable archetypes.
There are peculiar moments in this first act that make you suspect there is more going on: the radio malfunctioning briefly, a tendency for the characters to break into dance, the daughter appearing in a spotlight to express her discomfort with the situation.
As if a brick wall has collapsed on you
Then we come to act two and everything changes. It’s as if a brick wall has collapsed on you. From here on in, we are in no doubt this is about race and we are looking at what it means to be black: the white gaze, the stereotypes, the cultural appropriation. Not that Jackie Sibblies Drury presents a simple lecture. Fairview is subtle comedy with many layers, presented with a unique theatricality and directed with flair by Nadia Latif. The twists are jaw dropping and lead you to question what happened in the first act and who these people are. So please don’t read any more if you don’t want to spoil those dizzying surprises.
Act two repeats act one but this time it’s acted out silently while the radio- maybe the radio- provides a commentary from four white people. Who are they? They could be the creators of the characters we are seeing or they could be simply ciphers for the white gaze. Anyway they digress into a discussion about what race they would like to be, each time coming up with stereotypical views of those races, ending with black, where they conclude they wouldn’t want to be the kind of middle class black people we are viewing because they are boring. It’s poor black people who are interesting- the rappers, the loud mamas. The voice who would like to be black remembers her black maid.
This does go on a bit but then there’s a delightful moment when the characters on stage, previously unsynchronised, segue into apparently mouthing what the voices are saying, even though we can remember that this wasn’t the dialogue from the first act. So, in a way, the characters come together in a prelude to the third act.
An uncomfortable evening for those ‘identifying as white’
Because, if that wasn’t enough, we then pick up story of the family and it’s not long before the characters we previously heard talking decide to come on to the stage to spice up this middle class family with black characters who are more ‘interesting’. So the missing brother appears as a rapper, although his sister is still asking how the partnership is going. The mother appears twice, once as the remembered black maid, a history Beverley contradicts. The white people confuse, question and provoke the black people. The black people object to being told what they are. It all ends in an amazing food fight.
Then in a final coup, the daughter invites those in the audience ‘identifying as white’ to come up on stage and see what it feels like to be in the spotlight. To not be ‘normal’, but instead to be focussed upon, expected to perform in a certain way, simply because of the colour of your skin. The actors leave the stage; many of the audience climb on to the stage including me. I’m uncomfortable with defining myself by race but I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to see the view from the stage.
It was an interesting experience. The lights are blinding. You can’t see the audience (or what’s left of it). You go from being an anonymous member of that audience to being the focus of attention. I tend to think that theatre is about letting you into other people’s lives or letting us see ourselves in different ways but this really took it from an intellectual exercise to a physical one.
Because Fairview is an American play, it wasn’t as much a punch in the guts for me as it clearly was to audiences when it first performed in the US where there is a history of slavery and segregation. Black people in this country have been and are subject to racial prejudice but they have never been divided from the white population. It would be much harder to write a play which involved stereotyping a black British culture.
A subtle layered comedy
Not that Jackie Sibblies Drury presents a lecture about racist stereotypes and cultural appropriation, except right at the end. If she did, I might be saying that she wasn’t telling us much we didn’t know already. Instead she starts with a middle class family, and thereby acknowledges that education and money are levellers. She subtly shows that even they are aware of what is expected of them which manifests as what you might call watered down stereotypes, a tendency to break into dance for example. She also presents the white people as stereotypes (the camp gay man springs to mind) which suggests that Fairview is not only about race.
I took from the evening a strong plea to take individual people as you find them- with a fair view- rather than imposing preconceptions or prejudices. Anyone could be a victim of prejudice if they are in an underprivileged or weaker group.
That’s what I came away with but this is such a good play that I think people, depending on their backgrounds and prejudices, will have come away with many different reactions. Even if you see it and decide, as some critics did, that Fairview is divisive or outdated, you will come out thinking and talking about it long after the audience have left the stage.
Fairview can be seen at the Young Vic in London until 23 January 2020.
Juliet Stevenson outstanding in Robert Icke’s exposure of populism
Dr Wolfe, played by Juliet Stevenson, prides herself on being logical and making medical decisions based on facts in a world of irrationality.
Hildegard Bechtler’s stark set is quite a contrast to the detailed oppressiveness of her design for Rosmersholm. Here you have bare pale walls with only a table and benches in the middle, very clinical and hospital-like but also reflecting the cool rationality of the main protagonist.
On this occasion she’s treating a 14 year old girl who has botched a self administered abortion and contracted sepsis. She’s going to die and Dr Wolfe wants her to die peacefully. A Catholic priest turns up expecting to give her the last rites but the doctor doesn’t want her patient disturbed.
Thenceforth this sparkler of an incident turns into a stick of dynamite as the doctor is attacked on all sides: by her colleagues who want her power reduced, by campaigners who seize an opportunity for publicity, by internet trolls who want to vent their anger.
An online petition condemning her gains tens of thousands of signatures from people who know nothing of the case. An anti-abortionist attacks her even though she didn’t carry out an abortion. People abuse her and accuse her of murder. Her Jewish parentage is invoked as a reason for her anti-Catholic behaviour.
Much of the play is about a rational person trying to maintain her position while being besieged by irrational, prejudiced people with their own agendas.
Robert Icke’s clever use of gender and colour blind casting
Writer and director Robert Icke cleverly uses gender and colour blind casting to wrong foot the audience. We don’t see why the doctor should be accused of prejudice until we realise that someone we thought was white was black or someone we saw as a woman is a man, thus underlining that it is the accusers who are prejudiced.
The doctor is drawn into defending herself and, under pressure, she reveals some prejudice in her own behaviour which leads to irrationality, but in unexpected ways.
Take language. Her pride in her rationality is illustrated by her obsession with the correct use of English. She picks someone up for saying ‘literally’ in a context where it means precisely the opposite. Later she is forced to acknowledge that language is fluid and subjective, when her enemies pick on a seemingly innocuous phrase as being racist because she used it against a black person.
She also freely admits that her practice of medicine is only the sum of today’s knowledge and could be seen as ignorant and like witchcraft in the future.
The original play on which The Doctor is based is Professor Bernhardi by Arthur Schnitzler. Written a hundred years ago it was a warning against the rise of populism and its use of people’s prejudices as a weapon. These days the tools may be different- social media and TV- but Robert Icke’s new version suggests the tactics of populists remain the same.
Juliet Stevenson gives a five star performance
The Doctor shows how frighteningly easy it is for the rational can be submerged by the irrational. Our protagonist gradually breaks down as she is engulfed by a nightmare. Juliet Stevenson gives a five star performance as she descends from the ramrod stiff leader at the opening through anger to desolation and tears.
The problem for me was that the plot seemed contrived. I didn’t believe that events would turn out this way. Would a senior doctor in dementia take on someone with sepsis from A&E? Would a TV debate really include an anti-abortionist when abortion was not the issue? Add to which, the other characters seemed like ciphers there simply to make a point.
The exception was the troubled young person staying with Dr Wolff and who has her private life exposed. only the other week The Sun published a repugnant story which used the name of famous cricketer Ben Stokes as an excuse to write about his parents and a family tragedy that happened before he was even born.Ria Zmitrowicz was convincingly nervous and vulnerable as she placed her trust in her substitute mother.
A lack of respect for his audience?
I was disappointed in one element of Robert Icke’s direction. There is a point where Juliet Stevenson sits on the front of the stage and has an important confrontation with another character. This was not visible from the Circle where I was sitting. I have worked in a 2000 seat theatre where the directors would go to the back and sides of each of the three levels to ensure that the actors could be seen. It would be surprising if, in a theatre as small as the Almeida with 360 seats and two levels, Mr Icke was unaware that hundreds of ticket buyers would be unable to see this crucial moment.
Remembering the theme of this play, I will admit that I don’t know all the circumstances and I’m not a director. Nevertheless I find it difficult to believe he couldn’t have moved this scene upstage a little. I’m not going to start a Facebook petition or a Twitter campaign but he does appear to be showing a lack of respect for his audience.
Robert Icke is a hugely talented director and while his final production as associate director of the Alemeida Theatre may not be his best, The Doctor is an imaginative, thought provoking work that generates a powerful performance by one of our finest actors.
The Doctor is performing at the Almeida Theatre until 28 September 2019 before transferring to the Duke Of York’s Theatre for a limited run from 20 April 2020.
[usr=5] Prism at Hampstead Theatre (touring autumn 2019) is a double pleasure. It marks a welcome return for Terry Johnson, author of Dead Funny, Hysteria and Insignificance with his first full length play in ten years. And it gives Robert Lindsay the chance to get his teeth into a role worthy of his great acting talent.
Based on the life of the cinematographer Jack Cardiff, Prism tells a story of dementia. It shows us Cardiff’s uncertain grip on present day reality and, in a ‘wow’ moment of revelation, we get to see the world as he is seeing it – memories of his life in the movies. On top of that, we are given a fascinating insight into the art of lighting and treated to some magical effects.
Terry Johnson’s understanding of the art of theatre is peerless. He describes himself as a ‘dramatist’ and rightly so. Here he has directed as well as written this play and has created a pretty much perfect piece of theatre, which is ironic for a play about a filmmaker.
It has sharp dialogue, it’s funny, it’s poignant and it does things only theatre can do. There is a moment when, as the scenery moves, Jack steps from a location in his memory of the past to his present location but still acting out in his mind a past situation which we have already seen from the others’ point of view. It could only work in a live performance.
Robert Lindsay is one of our great stage actors
It’s a play full of metaphors for the process of growing old and dying. Cardiff fears blindness more than death but we realise the obliteration of his brain will be as bad. A prism is the key to making colour filming work just as the hippocampus is the key to a functioning brain. The ‘dying of the light’ as night approaches was Dylan Thomas’ metaphor for death: here it is literally the moment when you can no longer film.
Above all, this is an opportunity to see one of our great stage actors. Robert Lindsay has done a lot of work in light entertainment from the musical Me And My Girl to TV’s My Family to the recent stage version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. He has done it brilliantly but perhaps his ability to entertain us has made us forget the depth of acting of which he is capable. This is a timely reminder that his combination of rich voice, rugged good looks, timing and sheer presence are to be treasured.
Claire Skinner, Barnaby Kay and Rebecca Night all provide excellent support but the evening belongs to Robert Lindsay. I hope Prism gets a West End transfer. This is a production that everyone who loves theatre should see.
News added June 2019
Prism starring Robert Lindsay but with some changes to the rest of the cast is touring during autumn 2019: